‘We have learned from Covid how much we miss touch’

Unthinkable: Philosopher Richard Kearney argues that sight began displacing other senses even before the pandemic

The coronavirus represents an attack on the senses. Loss of smell or taste are symptom of Covid-19, while everyone – infected or not – has experienced a withdrawal of touch.

This, according to philosopher Richard Kearney, has compelled us "to live through the eye more than at any time in history".

In a new book, Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense, the Cork-born public intellectual – who is now Charles Seelig Professor in Philosophy at Boston College – writes: "With the outbreak of the pandemic, the world went online." WhatApp-ing, Zoom-ing and scrolling for Covid news all took off and, "Though protective limits were established with regard to touching, tasting, and inhaling, our eyes worked overtime…"

Winter Nights

The book might seem like it was written for the Covid era but it is the product of years of rumination and was due to be published in 2020 before the pandemic necessitated an update. Commitment to the theme is a family one – his wife and their two daughters are the book’s illustrators.


Today’s Unthinkable guest, Kearney argues that “we have learned from Covid how much we miss touch”. Forecasting a “radical rehabilitation of tactility” once the pandemic is over, he says: “It is no accident that skin is our largest organ and that we are born and die naked. We need computers but we also need carnality.”

How was touch already under threat before the coronavirus arrived?

Richard Kearney: "It was already under some threat from the growing digitalising of our experience in what I call – after [philosopher] Charles Taylor – our contemporary culture of 'excarnation'. But this modern turn from the tactile was already prefigured centuries ago in the privileging of sight over touch with Plato and mainstream western philosophy.

“Plato pointed out that the Greek term for man, ‘anthropos’, means the one who looks up – moving away from our original condition of four-legged mammal who touched and sensed the earth directly. This led to an ‘optocentric’ western culture where sight was considered the most intellectual and spiritual of the senses since it held things ‘at a distance’ and allowed for a dominant and domineering view of nature.

“The privileging of mental vision and insight broke our primal interconnectedness with all living sentient things. It made ‘man the measure of all beings’ and ruler of the universe.”

Is touch regarded as a sense of lesser value now? You say Aristotle viewed it as a precondition of all the senses but today – even outside the context of the coronavirus – it often has a negative connotation.

“Yes Aristotle tried to defend the primacy of touch – but he lost out to the Platonists. His view was that tactility was the most human and humane of the senses in that it allowed for ‘double sensation’ – a reciprocal relation between touching and touched.

“You can see someone without being seen, hear someone without being heard, but you cannot touch someone without being tangible, and therefore essentially vulnerable and receptive to others.

“Touch exposes us to people and things. It makes us sensitive. As being naked reminds us. Or as when we say someone is ‘touching’ – they move us.

“Which does not mean, of course, that touch cannot also be abused and abusive. Aristotle cites gluttony and physical violence as examples of perverse one-way touch – where we block the natural impulse of tactility to feel what other’s feel: namely, empathy.

“Sex abuse is a typical betrayal of tactility as reciprocal sensation. Torture and rape are always one-way. One being aggressively imposing itself on another. The very opposite of what the Greek tradition of Asclepian medicine called healing.

“Jesus also healed by touch. As did most therapeutic traditions up to our modern tendency to let bedside manner be replaced by imaging technologies. My book argues we need both kinds of therapy – ie carnal and chemo.”

Will we need human touch in the future, or can robot touch do pretty much the same job?

“Robots can do lots of things but they cannot touch and be touched. For that reason they can never replace the human…

“A computer has no birth marks and will never experience human passion or anxiety before death. In that sense the ‘digital’ as virtual code can supplement but never supplant the digital as actual finger print.”

Do the Irish have a particular problem with touch?

“I steered clear of this in my book... but it is an important question. I think the problem of touch has been a real issue in Irish culture. Our history of messed up sexuality, repressive church and State legislation bears this out – the child abuse and mother and baby schemes being just the latest tragic examples.

“Jansenism and puritanism – Catholic and Protestant – have a lot to answer for here. And the sheer physical cruelty and suffering of brutal invasions, plantations and famines in Irish history. It broke the body as well as the soul. And without wishing to romanticise Celtic traditions or ‘blame the English’ yet again, I do suspect that our Gaelic culture was actually far more open to tactility and the body than what replaced it.

“Just look at the ancient mythological cycles, or the intertwining bodies of the Book of Kells, or poems like the Midnight Court. I heard recently of some contemporary Irish feminists invoking the Brehon Laws as a more hospitable attitude toward the female body. I like that idea – without resorting to some essentialist nostalgia for the primal embodied Celt!

“In my own case, I was fortunate enough – as I mention in the preface to the book – to have grown up in a medical family which had a very healthy attitude to human affection and the body. My grandfather, a GP in Roscarberry, west Cork, was known as the ‘French doctor’ because he was always shaking hands...

“The first thing an infant does coming into the world – or a new room – is to reach out and touch things. And the last thing we do when we’re dying is to reach for another hand, something that the pandemic made sadly impossible for so many.

“I might add that I think most young Irish people today have a much more healthy attitude to the body than previous generations. The pull towards ‘excarnation’ for the new emerging generation is less about sexual repression than sexual simulation or virtualisation – so much sex is digitally-mediated now. We still have a need to ‘get back in touch’ with real people and things.”

Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense by Richard Kearney is published by Columbia University Press